On Campus

Why was William Ayers turned back at the border?

A bad decision—but the former terrorist isn't exactly an innocent victim

As reported earlier today (including here), U.S. education professor William Ayers, who was to give a speech in Toronto, has been denied entry to Canada. As our own blogger (and Memorial University education professor) Dale Kirby points out, the decision by Canada Border Services Agency to turn Ayers back at the border is “ridiculous.” Ayers, who is old enough to enjoy the seniors discount and is a professor of education at a major U.S. university, is no threat to the peace and security of Canada. The man may have a violent past—he first career was as a terrorist, as well get into in a moment—but the only bombs he’s coming to Canada to throw are rhetorical. He should of course be let across the border to give his lecture on education policy, or whatever else he wants to talk about.

But it’s worth remembering, before we run off and canonize Ayers as a martyr for the cause of free speech, that the man used to be a real-life bomb thrower. He used to be a terrorist. That fact is not unconnected to why he was denied access to Canada. He used to be one of America’s most wanted men. He was a founder of the Weather Underground, an organization of well-to-do radicals who planned and committed bombings, robberies and murders in the 1970s; he was once a fugitive from justice; he was a close associate of people given life sentences for their part in the murder of police officers. Ayers was involved in bombing both the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. (Due to prosecutorial misconduct back in the ’70s, the most serious charges against him were dropped; the same was not the case for many of his associates). Some may find his record romantic; the audience for his Toronto event, when it eventually takes place, will likely be primarily made up of such people. The people he and his friends robbed, assaulted and killed surely have other ideas. (But they, alas, don’t have Ph.Ds).

The Weather Underground were, fortunately, almost as good at accidentally blowing themselves up as killing cops, soldiers and capitalists; in 1970, three members of the Underground, including Ayers’ girlfriend, blew themselves up while assembling a nail bomb in a Greenwich Village townhouse. They were apparently planning to attack a soldier’s dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Ayers, who went on to become an education professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has never exactly disowned this past, instead offering half-baked regrets and evasive excuses for the activities of the Weather Underground, including claiming that they weren’t terrorists because they attacked symbols and property, not people. And even that isn’t entirely true: in his autobiography, Ayers admits involvement in robbings and muggings (to fund the Weathermen’s activities). Though as Slate magazine’s review of Fugitive Days noted, “Ayers reminds his readers that he’s had to omit or change many facts throughout his narrative because they describe actions on his part that are, well, illegal.” The pages and pages of evasions left the reviewer wondering “if he’s ever read a memoir quite so self-indulgent and morally clueless.”

You get a sense of why the Republican party worked so hard last year to link Ayers to Barack Obama: Ayers not only symbolizes a nightmarish era in American history, he was one of its primary causes. The giddy rage and lust for blood in the streets that fringe groups like the Weathermen represented was understandably terrifying to most Americans; Americans wanted the Vietnam war to end, they didn’t want an outbreak of murderous chaos at home. Fear and backlash against the chaos were instrumental in Richard Nixon winning two electoral landslides. (The revolutionaries were scarier than Nixon. Much scarier. If you want to get a flavour of what it was like to live in that time, as the world was falling apart and the proudly insane were having a run at taking over, read this novel.)

Should Ayers be allowed to speak in Toronto? Of course. It might be fascinating. I hope he will address his past. Even if he doesn’t, I want to hear him. Ideas are no threat to Canada.

There is a good argument to be made that, like his associates Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, Ayers once upon a time deserved a long spell behind bars. (Gilbert remains in prison for the murder of a Brinks guard and two police officers in 1981; Boudin was convicted of the same and paroled in 2003.) But that was a matter for the U.S. justice system, and it never successfully prosecuted him. For all I know, all these years later, he may even have some worthwhile educational ideas. He’s no threat, not anymore. But he’s no hero. Not then, not now.